Louis Armstrong Suffocates the Beach Boys on ‘No Surprises’
“No Surprises” was the first song Radiohead wrote for OK Computer. Back in 1995, when Radiohead were promoting The Bends by opening a slew of dates for R.E.M.’s Monster tour, Thom Yorke debuted a new tune for his bandmates, as well as the members of R.E.M. Although the song had some different lyrics and was titled “No Surprises Please” (after its final line), the basic ideas were there.
The Radiohead singer set the protagonist of “No Surprises” in a domestic, perhaps suburban situation. Yorke softly coos about pretty depressing circumstances: “a job that slowly kills you,” “bruises that won’t heal” and “a handshake of carbon monoxide.” He implicates that an out-of-touch government is to blame. The person at the center of the song is a victim of the system, whose only pleasures are in mundane things (“such a pretty house”) and may or may not be contemplating suicide. It’s up to the listener to decide if the carbon monoxide is to be used as a self-inflicted weapon or if it just exists as a run-of-the-mill pollutant.
As opposed to other OK Computer tracks where ugly lyrics matched ugly sounds (“Electioneering,” “Climbing Up the Walls”), “No Surprises” meets Yorke’s despondence with the record’s prettiest moments. Ed O’Brien’s gently chiming guitar and Jonny Greenwood’s glockenspiel lead the way.
“It was meant to be like a nursery rhyme,” O’Brien told Melody Maker in 1997. “Strangely, it was the very first song we did for the album. Didn’t exactly set the tone, did it? It’s a bit like Louie [sic] Armstrong’s ‘[What a] Wonderful World.'”
According to his bandmates, Marvin Gaye was also an influence, as was Pet Sounds-era Beach Boys, in the way the song’s twinkling opening mimics “Wouldn’t It Be Nice.” The sound of “No Surprises” was achieved on the first take of the song. Working at Canned Applause studio, producer Nigel Godrich had the boys play the instrumental portion of the song faster than was planned. That way, Godrich could slow it down when Yorke recorded his vocal, lending the final product a dreamlike, floating quality. The singer claimed that his band tried to improve on the first take, but never could, and they stuck with the original.
“No Surprises” was selected as OK Computer’s fourth single, released on Jan. 12, 1998. The song’s ethereal beauty made it a huge hit in Radiohead’s homeland. The song rose to No. 4 on the U.K. charts, marking the band’s fifth Top 10 smash in Britain. As with previous singles “Paranoid Android” and “Karma Police,” a distinctive video for “No Surprises” only enhanced the song. In the clip, directed by Grant Gee, Yorke sings inside an astronaut-like helmet, which fills with water part-way through. The singer escapes in time to lip synch the end of the track.
In the context of the album, “No Surprises” was conceived as a bit of a respite. Although the subject matter remained grim, or at best melancholy, the sounds were more alluring – especially in contrast to the dissonant sounds of previous track “Climbing Up the Walls.”
“It’s our ‘stadium-friendly’ song,” bassist Colin Greenwood told Humo magazine. “The idea was: First frighten everyone with ‘Climbing Up the Walls’ and then comfort them again with a pop song with a chorus that sounds like a lullaby.”
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